A couple of weeks ago, the government published its Apprenticeship Reform Implementation Plan. The plan was in response to the recommendations made in the excellent Richard Review. The latter is a must-read document for anyone who has an interest in vocational training. It is concise (just 19 pages ), well- constructed and easy to read. As such, it’s a wonderful antidote to the usual verbose, tedious and seemingly never-ending tracts written by faceless mandarins and which normally comprise a government “Review”.
Implementing The Richard Review
In essence, the Richard Review recommends that employers should be at the heart of an Apprenticeship programme whose quality and standing should continue to improve. Whilst some commentators have expressed concerns that employers should have such a powerful role in the programme, I wholeheartedly welcome the findings of the report. If Apprenticeships are going to continue to develop into a genuine alternative career path to academic training, then it makes sense that employers, who understand their business sector and their future skills requirements, should be playing a central role. As such, I applaud the government’s decision to implement the recommendations in full.
GCSEs Are Not The Only Answer
However (and there is a huge however coming up here), I am deeply concerned that the government has made a massive blunder with regards to future Maths and English requirements for would-be Apprentices. Few people would deny that we have a basic skills crisis in the UK. The most recent government data showed that nearly half the adult working population have the numeracy levels required by an 11 year old and external data such as the recent OEDC survey, placed the UK close to the bottom in numeracy and literacy skills amongst the top 24 developed countries in the world.
Academic v Vocational Careers
Clearly we have to change this situation if we are to remain competitive in the global marketplace, but equally, it’s essential that the changes we make will have a real impact. As a starting point, we need to be clear that young people now have a clear choice when it comes to drawing up a career plan. They can go down an Academic route which will take them via A-Levels through to University or they can go down a Vocational route whereby they develop skills and experience (probably via an Apprenticeship framework) through on-job training.
These two routes are very different and as such require an individual approach to basic skill development. Until recently, this appeared to be government thinking as well as mine. GCSE’s in Maths and English were the appropriate qualifications for the Academic pathway whilst Functional Skills provided an alternative (but equal) qualification for people taking the Vocational option.
However in the last few weeks, the government appears to have rapidly changed its position. In the Apprenticeship Reform Implementation Plan, they state quite clearly that once the reformed GCSEs are introduced, it is:
“Our ambition that all apprentices will use GCSEs rather than Functional Skills to meet the English and maths requirements in Apprenticeships”
This is a hugely significant change in policy and one which could potentially prove to be disastrous. Moreover, It seems to have been implemented with very little consultation with employers (who let’s remember are now supposed to be the beating heart of Apprenticeship programmes)
The Functional Skills Alternative
Functional Skills were brought in following the damning Wolf Report on standards of numeracy and literacy, as specific English and maths qualifications for learners taking a vocational career path. They have only been fully operational for a little over 12 months so as yet, there is no statistical data as to their impact. However, having delivered Functional Skills for nearly two years to a variety of large employers, all our evidence to date has been that they have been a huge success. Our clients report that their learners are more motivated (having achieved a real qualification as opposed to the worthless Key Skills), more likely to complete their Apprenticeship and more likely to continue their learning journey.
All of this could be put at risk by the government’s seeming obsession with GCSEs. Don’t get me wrong – the planned changes to GCSEs are timely and appropriate and will, I believe, bring about a desperately needed rise in standards. However, they are Academic qualifications and designed for learners choosing that path. Functional Skills on the hand, were specifically developed for learners taking the Vocational pathway. GCSEs are designed primarily for classroom learning over a minimum 12 month period whereas Functional Skills can be delivered in the workplace over a much more intense but shorter period. GCSEs are examined twice a year whereas Functional Skills exams can be taken at any time that best suits the learner.
Many of the learners we work with have failed their GCSEs in Maths and English. For whatever reason, the system of classroom learning failed to develop their skills in these key areas. Functional Skills has provided them with a lifeline and an opportunity to repair their confidence and show that they can apply these skills to many different work situations. Are we now to tell these young people that the only way they can complete an Apprenticeship in the future is if they return to the classroom environment and revert to an academic qualification in which they have already failed? I simply don’t believe that they will be prepared to do this and as such, the whole Apprenticeship project could be put at serious risk.
An Alternative Solution
So my message to the government is very clear. Accept that academic and vocational career paths are vastly different and require their own unique approach, assessment methods and qualifications. By all means seek to raise the standards for GCSEs but accept at the same time that they are an academic qualification designed for people on that career path. Functional Skills should not be side-lined into the Traineeship model, but should remain as the “gold standard” for learners on a vocational journey. To misquote Jeanette Winterson – GCSEs are not the only fruit.
Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills